A Lenten Paradox: Allowing vs. Engaging

As we continue to move through the weeks of Lent, there’s nothing like a bit of trivia to keep[…]

Unhoused Persons and Vulnerability: Theirs and Ours

When I lived in Louisville I was in a unique neighborhood.   It’s called Old Louisville and is comprised of[…]

We Are the Champions: Green Victories

I have a friend whose elderly father calls California the land of fruits and nuts. And he’s not talking[…]

Reflections

When I lived in Louisville I was in a unique neighborhood.   It’s called Old Louisville and is comprised of old Victorian homes.

There an adage regarding this area…Where is the only place that you can find millionaires living literally next door to impoverished people?

This is because, while originally constructed around 1900 as single-family homes for the well-to-do, years ago many of the homes were renovated to be single-room boarding house residence for people who were decidedly not well-to-do.

Since then many of these originally-elegant homes have been acquired by people interested in restoring them back to their former glory.

And thus, these days it’s a very diverse neighborhood.

I liked the diversity of my ‘hood.’  Its people and structures give it an interesting mix of grittiness and elegance.

At the intersection of 2nd Street (my street) and Magnolia, four doors from my house, lived an unhoused man who we’ll call Marley.

For the longest time I wasn’t keen on him being there.  It wasn’t about safety issues, because to my knowledge he had never caused anyone problems.

The problem was inside of me.

You see, I aspired to rent some of the space in this big house to Airbnb guests.

To realize this dream, I worked for months and months beautifying the property for my future guests who would be going to Churchill Downs just five minutes away to watch the Kentucky Derby,

and for a myriad of others who would expect tastefully-done accommodations.

I cared not only about my house and yard, but also about the surrounding neighborhood that they would be exposed to.  And I wondered what impact Marley’s presence would have on their perception.

Then, when it came time for me to move to Illinois and sell the house, I had another round of concern about the impression that an unhoused person living just steps away would have on prospective buyers.

Over the months of sharing neighboring space with Marley, his possessions ranged from several blankets to numerous trash bags filled with his belongings.

By the time I moved his collection also included a recliner-type chair, where he spent a majority of the time, street-side on the sidewalk at that intersection.

As a person who truly cares about the marginalization of the less fortunate,

I’m not proud to tell you that there were days in my four years in Old Louisville that I wished this likely mentally-ill middle-aged black gentleman was elsewhere.

Of course, I wished that he a sheltered place to be in the world.  But if he was going to be on the street, I also wished he was even just one street over.

(I imagine that he understandably chose his 2nd-and-Magnolia street spot due to his immediate proximity to a convenience store and a bar).

Speaking of convenience, the fact of the matter was that Marley’s presence was sometimes inconvenient to me, despite my actual life being almost completely unaffected by him.

I grappled with my own internal inconsistency.  Steps away from his curbside spot I had no less than four showers, with as many beds.

On countless occasions I pondered offering him a shower, a meal…something.

I don’t know if he would have accepted, because he was usually unresponsive when I’d walk by with my dogs, and I suspect that he was challenged with mental unwellness and seemed to mostly want to be left alone.

So, I don’t know if he would have accepted, but I do know that such an offer was never extended.  The risks felt too daunting.

What if he would start coming around when it wasn’t convenient? (There’s that convenience word again).

What if others would catch wind and come around uninvited, and then I’d have a situation on my hands?

And then there were my neighbors, friends, who I can almost assure you were NOT grappling with such considerations, or hoping that I was.

This all centered around my personal life, having little to do with my professional position as a minister of a church just four minutes up the road.

Let’s now turn our attention to that – the professional domain of my life.

Before I was hired for that church job, I went to Louisville, as ministerial candidates typically do, for a week, when the congregation and applicant size each other up before tying the knot.

I had been told during that week about a man who would sleep on the church’s porch. Members of the Search Committee told me that they knew his name and had a rapport with him.

I liked this, found it authentic, truly living the values of our faith.

And then a couple of weeks after the job began, while I was still cutting my teeth, something happened that was the catalyst for a bit of a turning point within me.

It was during a Sunday service, of all times, when we had a pre-planned fire drill, and everyone was asked to exit the building through doors we usually don’t use on Sundays, and go out to the church yard.

None of us had thought to tidy up the grounds since the entire congregation would be passing through that usually unused exterior space.

On the steps just outside the doors, and on the surrounding grounds were trash, articles of clothing, and soiled pieces of cardboard.

I was embarrassed by this, and somewhat frustrated. You see, aesthetics mean something to me, and this was not the aesthetic that I wanted for our members, and certainly not for our visitors.

It was about that time that more and more unhoused people were coming to sleep and hang out on our church’s property.

Within just a few short weeks homelessness had seemingly grown a lot in the neighborhood, because the city was ‘clearing out’ places where people experiencing homelessness typically stayed.

Consequently, many came in the direction of our church because we were across the street from the main library, complete with wifi, restrooms, and air-conditioned spaces.

As they came, so did their possessions… bicycles, small tents, cardboard mats, soiled clothing, drug paraphernalia, general debris and bodily waste.

 Meetings were called by neighboring businesses and schools…addressing the same question: What can be done about this?

The church had tried to do something about it by instituting a No Trespassing rule the previous year.

Signs had been erected, but it was never really implemented.

And thus people experiencing homelessness arrived.

These circumstances were at at my place of employment before Marley arrived at my place of residence, so it was all very new for the brand new minister.

And I wrestled with it for the same reasons I soon would in my residential neighborhood.  I considered myself to be a Franciscan.

If there’s one thing St. Francis loved, along with the natural world and its creatures, it was the outcast, the poor.

The word that best sums up what this man loved is our theme for this month… Francis had a deep love for the vulnerable.

These circumstances of unhoused people being literally on our church’s doorstep caused me to look within myself, to look with Franciscan eyes, ministerial eyes, aesthetic-appreciating eyes, pragmatic eyes.

And all these months, turned into years later, I can’t stand here and tell you that I’m completely comfortable with the answer to the question about how best to address the situation.

My internal unscripted responses varied from one day to the next.

For example, I remember one afternoon walking back to the church from a meeting of neighborhood businesses where this very issue was the focus.

As I approached our building I could see in the yard and on the church steps about a dozen people sitting and milling about.  Also in the yard were some of the things I mentioned earlier that people without residence often have in tow.

And the thoughts and feelings I had in those moments were more indignant than welcoming. “What are they doing there? This is our church, it’s not supposed to be….this.”

Then, the following morning I had to be at the church at 6:30.

Upon my arrival in the stillness of that early morning, there on the porch of the church’s main entrance were seven sleeping people all in a row, wrapped in blankets with backpacks tucked under their heads for pillows.

As I approached from the parking lot my heart was filled with compassion as I beheld their vulnerability. The simple sentiment that came to me was, “People need a place to sleep. We all need a place to sleep.”

I had to step over one of these individuals in order to unlock the entrance door, and in doing so I awoke this man, who saw that I was carrying a box and quietly asked me if I needed help with it.

I politely declined and went on in to the church. When I came back out several minutes later the porch had been vacated, with no signs that anyone had been there.

My varied responses in less than 24 hours underscored the variability of my internal experience. I imagine if I was back there now it wouldn’t be that different.

Despite these inconsistencies, which bring internal unease, there’s a deeper part of me that believes there’s blessing in all of this.

There has been value for me…as a minister, a citizen, a mother, a person of faith to have been close enough to these situations to feel the realities,

so as to better understand another’s experience, instead of it remaining at arms-length, experiencing it from a distance through the media.

Jesus understood this value when he spoke of the Beatitudes in his Sermon on the Mount….Blessed are the poor in spirit, and the meek, and those who suffer persecution.

The message here may sound like he was talking the people on the street, and of course he was.

But the richness of the message also extends to a vast majority, if not all of us gathered here.

There is blessing in stepping off our sanitized path of convenience, to decidedly not have ‘just another day for you and me in paradise’

in order to understand the plight of others more deeply, and thus to lovemore deeply.

We’re going to explore the Beatitudes more at Easter time.  But their message is also what Lenten practices are about – foregoing some of our typical external comforts,

so that we can make more space for the deepening of our internal lives.

Perhaps we could add to the list of Beatitudes:

Blessed are those who are exposed to the hard realities of others,

for through their exposures they are empowered with the truth, and are thus informed and equipped to respond with mindful compassion.

I recently saw an online commentary that said:

The Sermon on the Mount is primarily about who we are, and not what we do.

Issues such as homelessness beckon us to take pause and consider who we are, as individual followers of Jesus and as a Christian faith community…

what we value, and how we meaningfully, not theoretically but meaningfully, manifest what we value.

The embodiment of our values isn’t always black and white, rigidly one way or the other.  Instead it’s often a bending and blending.

I can’t tell that I have hard and fast responses to the questions we’ve explored here this morning about how best to step into the challenge of some in our communities being unhoused.

I am, however, deeply grateful to be a part of this New Covenant Community with you, where questions such as these are as welcome as answers in our journey of faith…

Where (and I quote from our NCC Belief Statement)…

We gather around a table that reminds us of Jesus’ invitation to strangers to become a new community–a community in which we all become ministers to each other, to our world.

May we purposefully strive to live fully into what we profess to believe, and therefore who we are.

Tags:

Comments are closed